Final pieces of homelessness consultant’s recommendations to be put in place, thanks to County Commission’s unanimous votes

Quality of Life Ordinance to go into effect on March 31, after training has been conducted for Sheriff’s Office personnel and county staff

Consultant Susan Pourciau’s report features this cover. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Almost exactly two years ago — on Nov. 6, 2015 — the Sarasota City Commission and the Sarasota County Commission held their last joint meeting to try to resolve continuing conflicts over how best to address community homelessness issues.

The Commission Chambers in the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota was practically packed.

The session concluded with each board providing direction to its staff to work on a strategy incorporating both a homeless shelter and long-term housing and to report back in 45 days with recommendations. Just three days later, that initiative fell apart, after the County Commission learned that the Gulf Coast Community Foundation would not take the lead in helping the city and county staff members draft a set of proposals.

The County Commission then renewed its focus on creating a homeless shelter, and the City Commission put more effort into a Housing First approach.

Earlier this year, however, city staff decided to hire a consultant to undertake a thorough examination of homelessness in Sarasota County and offer suggestions. Both the City and County commissions endorsed the report Susan Pourciau, director of homeless training and technical assistance at the Florida Housing Coalition, produced in April.

On Nov. 14, the County Commission approved the final pieces of Pourciau’s recommendations, along with a new Quality of Life Ordinance. The latter will enable law enforcement personnel to deal with homeless individuals who violate county regulations but refuse any offer of help.

“It’s hard to believe, after many, many years of this issue, that basically, it comes down to a very quiet public hearing,” Chair Paul Caragiulo told Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services for the homeless, as the board prepared to vote unanimously to approve the new Quality of Life Ordinance. “I think that … the community is going to benefit tremendously.”

These situations “always seem to become anti-climatic,” Commissioner Charles Hines noted, referencing those full commission chambers of the past. Referring to the ordinance, Hines continued, “This … is the tool that we have been missing to move our community from what has been described as an enabling community, enabling homelessness.”

He also pointed out, “This isn’t meant to be heavy-handed. … [It is] meant to deal with a very, very small portion of the homeless population that just will not voluntarily engage in services.” The goal, he said, is to help homeless people transition “back into society, if at all possible.”

A homeless man sits in the Siesta Village gazebo in August 2016. File photo

Commissioner Michael Moran said of the new laws, “I think they’re absolutely critical to the implementation of a comprehensive solution to improve the chronic adult homelessness [situation].”

The Quality of Life Ordinance will not go into effect until March 31, 2018, to afford plenty of time for training of law enforcement personnel and county staff members on how to handle its various facets, Applebee told the board.

In response to concerns Sheriff Tom Knight has expressed about the expense of creating teams in his department to deal with the ordinance — similar to the City of Sarasota’s Homeless Outreach Teams — county staff also has scheduled a discussion between the commission and Sheriff’s Office senior personnel on Nov. 28, Applebee said.

Knight provided county staff an estimate that he would need $540,700 for new full-time personnel to deal with the county regulations. Knight wrote the board a letter in August to express concerns about the financial impact on his operations if the ordinance were passed, as proposed.

Sheriff Tom Knight’s staff has provided the county this estimate of additional expenses for his department to enforce the Quality of Life Ordinance. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Making enforcement possible

On a separate, earlier motion, the County Commission also gave full support to funding recommendations for the current fiscal year to enable the Sheriff’s Office to enforce the ordinance. Those steps, Applebee explained, were designed to implement recommendations Pourciau made in April.

They will enhance the leadership of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, which serves as the Continuum of Care entity for Sarasota and Manatee counties; ensure that a coordinated entry system will be used for all homeless individuals who receive help from agencies; and provide a sufficient number of emergency shelter beds at The Salvation Army in Sarasota.

Wayne Applebee. News Leader photo

As staff and board members have pointed out numerous times over the past several months, the county has not been able to prevent people from camping out of doors after hours at its parks, for example, because of worry that it would face legal repercussions for violating what is known as the Pottinger Rule. That refers to a federal district court order that said law enforcement officers of the City of Miami could not arrest homeless individuals for life-sustaining conduct — such as sleeping in a park after hours — when no emergency shelter was available as an alternative.

In her report, Pourciau recommended that a total of 50 emergency beds at The Salvation Army would be sufficient to handle the needs of homeless individuals in Sarasota County, as the goal would be to help those people obtain the assistance they needed — including, for example, substance abuse treatment — to be able to gain stability in their lives and move into housing.

As a result of the commission’s Nov. 14 votes, Applebee explained that the county will provide $194,000 this year to the Suncoast Partnership to address adult chronic homelessness. The county’s annual contribution to the nonprofit historically has been $112,000, he noted, but Pourciau had recommended that the Partnership create a new leadership board as well as a group comprising representatives of major contributors of funding to aid the homeless in the community. She referred to the latter as a “Funders Council.”

Jon Thaxton, a longtime county commissioner who is senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, has agreed to serve as chair of the new leadership board, Applebee noted.

Furthermore, the Partnership will be overseeing the implementation of the coordinated entry system, Applebee reported. That will be a “unified system that uses evidence-based assessment tools and housing priorities” as homeless people seek help, he told the commissioners. People will be able to enter the system in a variety of ways, he explained, from going to brick-and-mortar facilities to talking with “a social worker with a laptop out in the field, in a park …”

Because of those extra responsibilities the Partnership will be taking on, Applebee said, staff recommended the increase in county financial support for its work.

The City of Sarasota is providing an extra $82,000 this year to the Partnership, Applebee noted, and the community foundations together are contributing $164,000 to the Partnership’s work.

During a Sept. 6 public meeting, attendees offered these comments about the proposed ordinance, which garnered staff responses. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Partnership also will continue to handle the annual Point In Time survey that attempts to count all the homeless individuals in Sarasota and Manatee counties, he added. Further, it will continue to apply for federal and state grants for community programs. This year, it won $1,273,000 in such funding assistance, he added; 73% of that was distributed to nonprofit organizations in Sarasota County that provide assistance to the homeless.

Additionally, County Administrator Tom Harmer will execute a $272,600 contract with The Salvation Army to enable the county to use up to 30 beds a year for emergency needs.

“We will begin with 10 [beds] immediately,” Applebee pointed out. They will be given to individuals referred to The Salvation Army by the Sheriff’s Office, he said. The goal is not to pay for more beds than the county needs, Applebee added.

Facets of the Quality of Life Ordinance

After the County Commission approved the funding on a motion by Commissioner Hines, Applebee moved on to a presentation about the Quality of Life Ordinance, which, he noted, has been a board priority since November 2013. That was when the City and County Commissions heard a report it had commissioned of a nationally known homelessness expert, Robert Marbut; the boards had contracted with him for assistance.

A graphic on the website of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness underscores its mission. Image from the website

County staff worked with the Office of the County Attorney and held two meetings this summer with representatives of the Sheriff’s Office, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, the offices of the State Attorney and Public Defender of Sarasota County, the Suncoast Partnership, the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in its efforts to draft the ordinance, Applebee continued. It also held a public workshop on Sept. 6, which 11 people attended, he said. “The ordinance was revised several times …”

Specifically, he explained, it prohibits outdoor camping and the storage of personal property on public land. Several factors will have to be considered for law enforcement officers to approach an individual camping in a park, he pointed out. For example, the person will have to have a number of personal belongings at the site, and evidence of past fires, earth-breaking activities and use of an outdoor area as a restroom — in spite of the fact no sanitary sewer system exists there — will have to be observed.

The goal is to move violators to a shelter, Applebee said.

No enforcement of the Quality of Life Ordinance can occur, he continued, unless a deputy first gives the person an opportunity to relocate to another area; the deputy determines that a shelter bed is available; the deputy provides the individual — in writing — assurances that the person can get a bed, at no cost, and can be transported to the facility at no cost; that the person does not have to be sober or agree to any mental health/substance abuse assistance; and that the person will have “a reasonable amount of space for their personal property.”

As for illegal storage of personal property on county lands: Applebee said a person would not be charged if he or she removes items after receiving a warning. The ordinance also prohibits the destruction of any belongings “unless it’s an immediate health hazard,” as defined by state law, Applebee added.

County staff will collect and store personal items that cannot be accommodated at the shelter, he noted.

Violations of the ordinance will be classified as the lowest level of misdemeanor, Applebee pointed out.

The Quality of Life Ordinance includes these findings of fact. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County staff will make the new ordinance available to all the municipalities in the county, Applebee continued, so if they do not have similar regulations of their own, they can consider adopting those the county will be putting into place.

The City of Sarasota does have a similar ordinance, he added, but county staff has asked that city staff review it for consistency with the county laws.

After Applebee concluded his presentation, Commissioner Alan Maio told him, “This creates the framework to preclude the types of behavior that this board asked you to address.”

In previous meetings, both Maio and Commissioner Hines have voiced frustration over incidents in county parks and at other county facilities, when vagrants have refused to clean up personal belongings and have acted belligerently toward members of the public.

Hines made the motion to approve the ordinance, and Maio seconded it.